Like the Harry Potter books themselves, this story is about the struggle between good and evil. Unlike the Potter series, however, our story is embedded in the reality of Christianity in present-day America. Author J.K. Rowling uses magic and the occult as a stage for a fantasy battle; those who represent Christianity wrestle with how to respond to the Potter phenomenon, which is reaching an audience of biblical proportions.
"Never in the history of the world has one set of stories had this kind of reach," says Connie Neal, a former youth pastor and author of The Gospel According to Harry Potter. "Within five years, 110 countries in 40 languages have read more than 150 million copies of the Harry Potter series. It's far beyond anything in the history of publishing."
Yet a long-simmering controversy over this fantasy series continues to brew in Christian communities around the country. "It hasn't gone away," says Neal, noting that anti-Harry Potter books this year have more than tripled Rowling's books in sales. "The Christian media is becoming more adamantly against Harry. Extreme reactionaries have taken to burning books."
In spite of, or perhaps because of this controversy, Harry Potter has demonstrated magical staying power. In 2002, Potter and J.K. Rowling were No. 1 on the list of most challenged books and authors, according the American Library Association. It's because of the wizardry.
"What's fascinating to me is the whole religion angle," says John Granger, who lives on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state. Granger has an advanced degree in classical language from the University of Chicago, and is author of The Hidden Key to Harry Potter. "It's such an ironic situation," he says. "These are the most Christian novels since C.S. Lewis," the author of The Chronicles of Narnia.
So what is this fuss all about? How is it that Harry Potter's wizardry has been able to create such a spell that some Christians imagine the light of the gospel story within Harry Potter, while others see the dark power of the occult? Neal, whose degree is in communications and who was the first author to explain why Harry Potter was going to be a controversy before it became one, thinks she knows the answer.
"This is classic Communications 101," she writes in What Is a Christian To Do with Harry Potter? "It's like the old woman/young woman exercise that's been around since the early 1900s. It's an ink drawing. You look at it, and you see one of two things, depending on where your eyes go first." One perceives either a confident young woman or a haggardly old woman -- then the mind causes all of the pieces to fall into place to support the supposed perception.
"In a literary way, Harry Potter is an equivalent of this kind of drawing," says Neal. "If you see that in Rowling's fantasy world, there's no such thing as a good witch or a bad witch, it all makes sense. Your mind goes, 'Oh, it's one of the best pieces of literature [presenting] a story used to teach moral lessons, that good wins out over evil, that one is able to conquer evil outside themselves, and able to grow to conquer evil inside our hearts, which all of us have.' "
But if one sees witchcraft first, suddenly the view of Harry Potter is darker. There are 64 aspects of witchcraft in the first four Harry Potter books that people in occult groups actually practice today. "Suddenly you begin to pick those out point by point," says Neal, "then add to that the Bible saying occult forces are dangerous, deceptive, attractive and part of a personal force of evil to destroy all that is good -- well, now you don't see an author using the cult term as a literary device."
If readers are predisposed to see something in a certain way, in other words, and if the facts of what they perceive confirm what they've been told, their minds are satisfied that it's clear.
John Koh is a children's ministry
pastor at Faith Bible Church in
Spokane. "Most conservative,
evangelical Christians struggle with, 'Will my child get caught up in witchcraft as a result of reading Harry Potter?' " says Koh. "The point is not that it contains magic, but how will this influence a child's worldview when it clashes with a Christian worldview. Will a child somehow think witchcraft is cool, when the Bible clearly states that it is an abomination to the Lord?"
Koh acknowledges that a fantasy like Harry Potter could be used in a positive way in child's life, if it were harmless to the mind and heart of a child. "But this fantasy could become harmful" he says, "because of what the Bible teaches regarding the occult, and the demonic world which is controlled by Satan. We are not to take that lightly."
Yet the fantasy of magic, of "saying the magic word," has been used as a literary device from at least the Middle Ages to the present time to convey the creative power of human spiritual capacity.
"You say the word and things happen -- it's how God creates," says Granger. "Yet all of the revealed traditions, not just Christianity, condemn the principalities and powers. You don't do what they tell you. Even the darkest wizard in Harry Potter doesn't call on the dark power."
In J.K. Rowling's imagination, the battle of good and evil plays on, as it does in our everyday lives. "Look at the climate we're in," says Neal. "Everybody's scared. There are all kinds of things threatening us. As our world becomes secularized, it doesn't stop the human heart from longing for something beyond the mundane of our world. What if what is appealing to us about Harry Potter is that within our reach is access to the other world where a cosmic battle of good and evil is going on?"
"What if", adds Granger, "we are able to recognize beauty and see ugliness and recognize both because of this Harry Potter, who never balks at physical death but thinks spiritual death is far worse?"
According to those who study such matters, like the late Mircea Eliade, author of The Sacred and the Profane, literature serves a religious function in a profane culture. If access to authentic, traditional material is limited, human beings find it somewhere else.
"In the West, we can't seem to talk about spirituality without using Christian language," adds Granger. "Yet to talk to anybody in the current age, you have to sneak past the label 'Christian.' J.K. Rowling has snuck past the watchful dragons so successfully that people think she's a dragon [and] speaking for the occult, when in reality she is speaking for the opposite."